The second of my self-serving ‘columns’. Has been sitting in my drafts since last week, so apologies to my legion fans dying to read it.
It takes real subtlety to write about failing memory – and it’s something that is firmly on the agenda right now. Florian Zeller’s The Father was one of the most praised shows of 2015, with Kenneth Cranham’s central performance as an ‘awkward, difficult, demanding’ – that’s Billington – old man losing his mind earning him an Olivier award. Alistair McDowall’s vastly different X at the Royal Court also approached issues surrounding corrupted memories with a plethora of disconcertingly repeating phrases and nuanced shifts in tone. And memory is even popping up on the fringe too: The Memory Show was a sensitive, if irritatingly trite musical exploration of early onset Alzheimer’s that ran at The Drayton Arms in South Kensington earlier this year.
But this isn’t a new thing, more of a twenty-first century resurgence. Dramatists from Pinter to Ibsen to Chekhov to Shakespeare have all written characters with deteriorating mental faculties, with King Lear the eternal measure by which all else is judged. And this year, predictably, has seen a host of Lears, from high-profile productions like that at the Manchester Royal Exchange with Don Warrington and Gregory Doran’s forthcoming RSC version with Anthony Sher (yawn), to smaller productions, like Creation Theatre’s five-man adaptation in Blackwell’s Bookshop in Oxford. Forget 1606, 2016 is the year of Lear.
It’s interesting to note the similarities between how Shakespeare’s seventeenth-century text approaches this topic with how contemporary writing does, and this week I saw two productions that allowed me to do just that: Northampton Royal and Derngate’s underwhelming Lear, with Michael Pennington in the title role, and Nick Payne’s Elegy at the Donmar Warehouse. Both have been received with lukewarm praise by the critics, with Pennington largely being hailed as the glue that holds Max Webster’s Lear together, and Zoe Wanamaker’s central performance in Elegy recognised as a highlight in an otherwise sterile play (although I personally think Payne has turned out a pertinently thoughtful piece).
Although the language used is of course vastly different, and the situations in which the loss of sanity occurs practically incomparable, the two portrayals of individuals losing control over their own minds are actually rather alike. In Payne’s time-hopping Elegy, we see Wanamaker’s Lorna at various stages of lucidity, just as do with Lear. We see her loving and passionate with Barbara Flynn’s Carrie, just as we first see Lear taking great pleasure in doting upon his daughters (although Lorna’s emotion is certainly less vainglorious than Lear’s). We see her entirely uncomprehending of her surroundings, suspicious of other’s help, just as we see Lear rejecting Gloucester’s help in favour of his ‘noble philosopher’, Poor Tom (actually Edgar). And we see her retreat into herself when robbed of all she once knew – the clinical erasure of her memory is the pivot upon which Payne’s play hinges – just as we see Lear, bereft of reason, ‘scarce awake’ and initially disbelieving Cordelia’s return.
Payne’s twenty-first century play – or at least its presentation of deteriorating mental faculties – informed by twenty-first century research into memory and identity as it is, is demonstrably similar to Shakespeare’s seventeenth play. Not only does this observe the universality of an arresting theme – what made good drama in 1606 makes good drama 410 years later – but it also speaks volumes about Shakespeare’s boundless capacity for empathy.
And is there not, in both plays’ underlying emphasis on the importance of honestly saying what you feel whilst you still can, something exquisitely, poignantly human? “Speak what we feel, not what we ought to say”, speaks Albany. “Or look what happens…” is the implied conclusion. Lear’s madness and death are the direct result of Goneril and Regan’s lack of honesty; the fragility of the human condition is exposed by a failure of integrity. Payne doesn’t quite go that far, but the crushing pathos of his conclusion – in which Lorna cannot even recognise her partner of more than 20 years – says something similar about the importance of love asserting itself when it is needed most, and when it still can. Humanity must triumph over duplicity.
It also takes great skill to act a part that encompasses mental deterioration, and although what comes out of the mouth is of course of huge importance, I would contend that it is the physicality of such roles that truly makes them come alive. Michael Pennington, in Max Webster’s Lear showed a true mastery of this: his decline from regal majesty into grief-ridden senility was mirrored in the gradual inhibition of his movement.
At first, he stomped, barrel-like around the stage, gruffly apportioning his kingdom into parts and exercising his authority with his hands as much as his words. But as the play progressed, and his folly in exiling Cordelia and empowering her ungrateful sisters was exposed to him, the constriction of his kingly power was mirrored in the constriction of his actions. After a somewhat underwhelming storm scene – in which he nonetheless artfully conveyed the futility of his own commands – he retreats into himself and ends up an unmoving, unspeaking vegetable, confined to a wheelchair, unable to even exercise autonomy over his own legs.
It’s a powerfully realised transformation by Pennington, and it speaks volumes about the roundedness of his ability; he is usually praised for his resonant verse-speaking, his Lear proves he has a commanding control of his physicality as well. It shows that to convincingly portray madness and senility, the visual is just as important as the vocal.
I also caught The Easter Rising And Thereafter at Jermyn Street Theatre this week, and Emilia Galotti at The Space. The former is essentially an analytical documentary, presented as a pub-table conversation; Christopher Bland’s combination of song, poetry, drama and re-enactments is a charming, moving way of elucidating one of the twentieth century’s defining ideological conflicts. The latter, a rare revival of a Lessing play in translation, is a gripping drama about love, lust, jealousy, and murder, that’s points about the ruling class are not as out-dated as I initially thought, and which is competently staged on a low budget.